Emerging into the ocean opens a door towards physical and mental well-being

Crédito Rodrigo Farías

This month is the inauguration of the Ocean School Pichilemu, a collaborative initiative betweenFundación Rompientes andParley for the oceans that facilitates intergenerational educational events to learn about oceanic culture through talks, educational outings, coastal clean-up days and a series of activities that promote collaborative learning about marine diversity and environmental conservation. One of its main objectives, explains Karina Villarroel, who is in charge of the School, is to “raise awareness about the way the ocean influences the well-being of ecosystems and the role we have, as human beings, in caring for the waters that make life possible.”

In an interview with our Foundation, the occupational therapist reflects on how emotional ties with the ocean—along with awareness with the mental and physical health that it provides—can reflect care experiences that are valued within everyday life. A conversation that goes from her mornings spent learning how to swim in the open sea in Los Vilos; to the present, where Karina uses her time to ensure that more people—and more women—experience the benefits of connecting with marine ecosystems.

Fundación Mar Adentro: How did you arrive at the Ocean School and what vital interests contributed to your decision to join the project? 

Karina Villaroel (KV): I came from working with participatory methodologies with communities and volunteers on nature conservation. I had been living in Pichilemu for three years when the opportunity to join the Ocean School arose and I have now been with it for almost a year, after going through a selection process. I arrived here thanks to my love for the ocean and my wish for my daughter and new generations to find inspiration in the protection of the ocean.

I was raised in Cerrillos, Santiago, and was always connected to nature; especially because this area used to be more rural. I would spend my vacations in Los Vilos and Pichilemu, sometimes accompanying my uncles on their fishing trips at dawn, and took open sea swimming classes in the mornings. When I was in the water, the sea would hypnotize me, time would pass by, and I would be trapped.

I always had a strong bond with the ocean, but when I was 10 years old I understood that that connection was in trouble. One day, in Los Vilos, a port was inaugurated to transport minerals close to Punta de Chungo, which became polluted with tailings and saw the arrival of algae that acted as defenders, as well as dead fish. It was through this lived experience that I discovered that there are threats to the environment. Then, once I became a mother, I thought about how I would like my daughter to enjoy her relationship with the ocean and the well-being it provides.

When I studied occupational therapy, on the other hand, I work about child neuropsychiatry and was shocked to learn how the ocean positively affects the brain; I began to believe that the best physical and mental therapy was the ocean. We must learn how the ocean affects us, and environmental education is essential to achieve this.

FMA: What activities does the Ocean School develop to strengthen this connection to the ocean?

 KV: First, it is important to mention that Parley for the oceans follows the AIR strategy[1] in terms of how to combat the contaminating presence of plastic in the ocean. The ‘A’ stands for avoid, in terms of living a plastic-free life; the ‘I’ is for intercept; and the ‘R’ for redesigning the plastic. This perspective is materialized in beach cleanups and learnings emphasized by the School, which itself functions as an AIR Station that creates connections with communities and local organizations.

We are located in the city center, in modular containers (one of them is a classroom) 500 meters from the small bay and the main street. It is a strategically accessible location next to a corridor with local low-consumption plant species and a collaborative garden shared with the Marial restaurant, which specializes in seafood.

In 2023 we began a 12-week pilot plan with workshops on ocean culture, aimed at children in 5th to 8th grades to complement school curriculums. We also organize talks on marine biodiversity in schools; art workshops for the oceans; educational outings and beach cleanup days. Part of my job is to establish relationships with community leaders and give talks along with two teachers—Duban Espinoza and Nicole Osiadacz—with whom we carry out nature walks along the coast and wetlands. Our work is guided by Rodrigo Farías, the country manager Parley Chile, who leads the team.

FMA: This month we celebrated another Women’s Day (8-M); how do you position yourself in your professional and gender roles in relation to the meaning and purpose of your work?

KV: I have always positioned myself from the ecofeminist perspective of occupational therapies. This implies promoting and understanding interdependence in the context of nature, that we are part of the biodiverse food web. We are the ocean, as everything goes towards it.

There is a model of occupational therapy that dialogues with systemic ecology by addressing interventions. Has been problematized the categorization of professions according to gender roles. For example, it addressed the field of nature conversation and how men tend to be more present in the public eye, while women’s connection to nature tends to occur more in rural contexts, given that their realities correspond to those territorial locations.

It is through this approach that we reflect on how women have marked a milestone in leveling the playing field by beginning to work within nature conservation at some point in history. On the other hand, the ocean has been culturally led by men and there is a belief that one must be brave to be in the ocean, which in turn does not tend to be linked to women.

These days, gender roles linked with the ocean are in transition. There are organizations of people who work with algae or groups such as Mujeres al agua, who on 8-M hosted an activity to understand the ocean (specifically its feminine side, as understood by the feminine la mar, in Spanish) as a medicine that creates connection, pleasure and enjoyment. The only way to protect the ocean is by knowing it and getting closer to this ecosystem through education, where the deconstruction of gender roles in a safe space is crucial.

FMA: There is an intention to change the cultural narratives associated with the ocean through education. What tools are there in your field to materialize this and, at the same time, why is it important to be present in this specific geographic zone? Could you contextualize the answer with current issues present at the socio-ecological level and its relationship with the ocean?

KV: It is necessary to mix approaches and disciplines, and understand the coastal communities and their roles within the ocean, together with their specific meanings and occupations. In this sense, urban Pichilemu is not the same as the rural side, which is more difficult to access. In addition, to the North the algae collecting communities are stronger. The practices are different; for example, the fishing nets are stored in a different way in each bay, and there are places without fishing bays, but with fishermen.

Occupational therapy with a community approach shows that all actors can be articulated to carry out collective occupations. One of these occupations includes undertaking conservation actions, which must be learned, as it is difficult to change habits without education.

At the School, we call on communities to display their knowledge, where different participatory methodologies and popular education perspectives converge to enhance sensory learning experiences. In order for this to be a safe space, it is important to have programs that are relevant to the community, which is one of my tasks when designing initiatives with experiential impact. Over time, through our pilot programs and calls, we have seen that children stop by after school to see how we are doing; that is, they are becoming involved in a collective task.

An important aspect that places us as a particularly suited community for this type of work is that this region (O’Higgins) is free of industries; that is, the ocean here is especially clean and must stay this way. We even see the upwelling phenomenon here, which creates nutrient-rich water that attracts whales. Giving importance and value to these ecosystemic phenomena is new within this community, which is in part due to the arrival of people from other territories. All of this is happening at the same time in Pichilemu, where there is great potential to promote ocean culture.

FMA: How would you define the concept of “ocean culture” in a coastal country like Chile?  

KV: I define ocean culture as the relationships and uses that arise from the articulation of seafarers, their occupations and ecosystems in relation to the socio-ecological context that they live in. This crossover results in a production of knowledge, where ocean culture doesn’t necessarily imply environmental conscience. Unfortunately, schools do not teach about the interdependence that exists between the ocean, the life it houses and what happens around it.

Understanding the influence of our interactions with the ocean can impact coastal performance, as not all fishing bays have environmental waste management, for example. Also, in Chile, the relationship with the ocean is often extractivist, that is, times of the year are not taken into account in order to cause less of an ecosystemic impact, as well as bans or the size of the extracted species. Only in the last five years has there been progress on legislation in this area.

If conservation is not taught in schools, then it becomes difficult to protect the ocean, so it becomes necessary to take control of this cultural failure as a society. Here we are working with oceanic literacy through experimental art and experiential education. If we want to transform our own teachings, beliefs and habits, we must do so with transformative methodologies available to science, in the context of education that goes beyond a passive vision of learning.

We must not forget that art was our first way of learning in life and when we re-encounter it, change is generated. Children here have their logbooks, they paint, draw and design, think up eco-innovations and, in turn, this favors their socio-emotional training. There is even a 13-year-old girl who organizes beach cleanups with friends and family, in addition to the parents who also organize. When there are collective experiences, it makes you want to make them part of daily life and repeat them.

FMA: Throughout your work, you have built relationships with communities affected by inequality and post-disaster recovery contexts. How does contact with nature—in this case, with the ocean—strengthen autonomy and help communities with vital needs?

KV: I’ve seen various experiences in conservation volunteering. For example, in the Chacabuco Park in Patagonia, the protests against HidroAysén in 2011 triggered a national mobilization. Previously, between 2006 and 2007, in what is now the Topocalma Sanctuary in Pichilemu, what happened around the Emisario Submarino project was relevant, because the project proposed the treatment of wastewater through the ocean. What I mean is that when communities know their territory and the well-being it produces, they tend to protect it, because the ecosystems provide them with vital conditions.

The ocean, in particular, creates jobs, food and allows the existence of life. When it has been in danger here, the community has organized; but for this to continue happening it is necessary to know the territory and the marine biodiversity, carry out collective mapping and permanent community diagnoses.

However, there are threats that might seem less urgent, such as plastic, which is not seen as being so problematic. During the summers is when we see the greatest threat in this sense, with the arrival of tourists and massive events. Here, beach cleanups help raise awareness. One of the elements of oceanic culture is that the ocean provides possibilities for existence, and the closer the community is to understanding its reach, the more they will protect its benefits and the autonomy it provides them.

FMA: You were a coordinator at the Surf School through the municipality in Pichilemu, based on a Comprehensive Community Health Care Model (MAIS, as per the name in Spanish, Modelo de Atención Integral en Salud Comunitaria) approach. What potential for territorial connection, intercultural integration and mental health does this approach have and how can it be translated into your current role?

KV: I’ve lived in Pichilemu for six years, in Cardonal de Panilonco, to the north of Pichilemu, a place between the countryside and the sea. The Surf School is part of a program which seeks to reduce the risks of psychosocial factors for children and adolescents via a MAIS approach, where surf isn’t just appreciated for its sporting dimension, but also its social one, understanding that practicing physical, social and spiritual activities converge into an activity of well-being.

The ocean will always be a benefactor and protector of health, as it impacts cells and generates a sense of return to the uterine world, activating a memory. When you enter the ocean, you always emerge differently. Having access to the experience of surfing is a hallmark of the community. Every day there are workshops, a lot of board sports and, lately, the PanAmerican Games encouraged the community to go into the water. At the same time,—and this can be extrapolated to The Ocean School—there is a family approach, where it is understood that new generations can benefit from being in contact with the ocean not only as a sport, but as a transition space for intercultural sharing, subverting gender roles, and stimulating a fairer society. The ocean is always a gateway to well-being.

*The Ocean School is open Monday to Friday (9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.) with programming or without prior registration. Through their social networks, you can learn more about this community meeting space for sea conservation.

About the interviewee:

Karina Villarroel is Head of The Ocean School by Parley for the Ocean and Fundación Rompientes in Pichilemu. She is an occupational therapist from the Universidad Andrés Bello (UAB), a candidate for a master’s degree in occupational therapy with a special mention in psychosocial intervention from the Universidad Santiago de Chile (USACH), and has training in areas such as social leadership, family health and ocean education. Throughout her career she has been involved with community work in relation to the conservation and protection of the environment.

She was interviewed by Violeta Bustos Vaccia, Head of Communications at Fundación Mar Adentro. A journalist, graduate in Data Visualization and Master in American Aesthetics from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. She is a content creator, researcher and teacher in the field of digital communication.

[1] Parley AIR is a strategy to end the growing threat of marine plastic pollution and help drive solutions to the climate crisis. It is based on the belief that plastic is a failed design—a symbol of the toxic era we have created—and to solve it we must reinvent the material itself.


Violeta Bustos Vaccia

Interviewed by Violeta Bustos Vaccia, head of communication at Fundación Mar Adentro. Journalist, graduate in Data Visualization and Master in American Aesthetics from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. Researcher and teacher in the field of digital communication and content creator.

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